Breakdown of Asanas
Three important principles of a posture include deep, calm inhales and exhales through the nose, alignment and comfort. In yoga, the weight of the body creates resistance to challenge the muscles and the bones, building strength and bone density. For instance, in plank pose, the shoulders are stacked over the hands and the weight of the body is distributed evenly across the hands and toes. This pose requires that all the major muscle groups in the body are engaged, particularly the abdominals to keep the body in one long line.
Plank pose can be modified by bringing the knees to the floor (thus shortening the lever). As the strength of your student increases, progressive overload can be incorporated by teaching them Chataranga Dandasana where the body is lowered to the floor, keeping the elbows tucked in close to the body, stabilizing the shoulder girdle and challenging all the muscles in the upper body, particularly the triceps. Abdominal engagement continues to keep the body in one long line.
Foundations: neutral alignment
The word “posture” comes from the Latin verb “ponere” which is defined as “to put or place.” The general concept of human posture refers to “the carriage of the body as a whole, the attitude of the body, or the position of the limbs (the arms and legs).
The anatomically ideal posture reflects a balanced relationship of all the skeletal muscles so that a minimum level of activation is required to maintain an upright posture. The bones of the spine stack up with lumbar, thoracic and cervical curves in the right proportion to absorb shock and maintain even pressure on the discs. The weight of the upper body is supported solidly by the legs and the pelvis to facilitate a balance between the upper and the lower body. The scapulae are supported by the rib cage and the arms hang freely around the shoulder joints.
Neutral alignment occurs when all parts of the body are balanced around the line of gravity. In this position, a person is able to obtain the optimal symmetry for his or her framework and body mass. This can affect everything from improved breathing patterns and circulation to greater ease and comfort within the body.
It is important to stress that in its natural alignment, the spine is not straight. Lumbar, thoracic and cervical curves are all shock absorbing. In a healthy spine, there is a slight forward curve in the lumbar spine, a slight backward curve in the thoracic spine and a slight forward curve in the cervical spine. The ears, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles are aligned as if a plumb line were running from the ears down through the torso into the legs and the feet.
When the spine is left in non-neutral alignment for extended periods of time it leads to strain on the muscles and joints. For example, an extreme lordosis (lower back curve) can lead to a shortening of the lumbar musculature and overstretching of the abdominal wall. An exaggerated kyphotic curve stretches the extensors of the upper back and shortens and collapses the upper chest, inhibiting proper respiration. The head is held forward with most of the cervical vertebrae in flexion (except for the first cervical vertebra which is held in extension to keep the head level). An inability to find neutral alignment in daily activities can lead to reduced oxygenation in the body and can even compromise the function of the internal organs in addition to muscle and joint problems.
Although it is important to be able to find and come back to neutral alignment, the spine is meant to be able to move in and out of neutral as well. Non-neutral alignment only becomes problematic when the individual can no longer find neutral alignment and poor posture becomes chronic.
Collapsing, propping and yielding
The way we organize ourselves in relation to gravity determines how well aligned our body is, how well we breathe and how well we can perform postures. There are three basic movement patterns relating to the earth which can either help or hinder us from obtaining ideal alignment.
When collapsing, our entire structure drops and sinks to the ground. Our joints close, our breath is shallow and lethargic and the chest caves in.
When propping, we actively lift away from the earth by pushing down, lifting the chest and shoulders and tightening our muscles. Perhaps we have been told that we have poor posture and are trying to keep our backs “straight”. This can cause us to have something called a “military posture”. This posture is characterized by rigidity. This can cause the breath to become tense and we may feel stressed. Since this type of posture can only be held through vigilant attention, it is difficult to sustain, does not support the flow of prana and causes us to tire easily. This tiring can cause us to vacillate between collapsing and propping as we continually try but fail to sustain what we perceive as good posture.
By yielding we use the rebound force of gravity in a beneficial way, allowing these surfaces in contact with the earth to give way to the earth. We actually give our weight to the earth yet maintain enough structural integrity so energy rebounds from the earth and elongates our bodies in space. This creates conditions more conducive to ideal alignment and deeper breathing.
Movement pattern exercises
Stand in mountain pose, feet hip width apart, knees soft. Experiment with collapsing. Stay on your feet, but let your body droop. Feel your chest cave-in, your shoulders close forward, notice how your chin juts out. Notice if the body/mind feels heavy.
Now, experiment with propping. Make fists with your hands, push down strongly through your feet, and lift your chest and shoulders as you tighten up all your muscles. Notice how the breath feels tight and your whole being begins to feel stressed out after a few minutes.
On your next inhale, feel your deep core muscles gently engage and feel the breath moving easily through the body. Release the weight of your feet and leg bones into the earth. Notice a subtle rebound of energy up through your legs and spine. Feel how your muscles have tone without being hard and how the joints are buoyant instead of locked. Notice a slight energetic lift in the heart and feel how your mind becomes calm and open, and your breath deep and easy.
After you have mastered yielding in mountain pose, try it in another favorite standing pose such as triangle (trikonasana). At first it can become difficult to find the balance between collapsing and propping which is yielding, but over time you will notice when you experience that subtle flow of rebound energy down through the legs and feet and then back up from the earth through the lower body and into the spine.
Lines of force
Yielding and lines of force are closely connected. Lines of force also allow you to use the rebound effect of gravity to create a clear conduit of energy throughout the body. When our structure is out of line, we experience a break or disconnect in the flow of energy and it becomes difficult and even uncomfortable to hold a pose. One of the clearest indications that the lines of force are creating a rebound effect is the sense that the breath flows easily, there is a free flow of energy in the body and a sense of ease in the joints. The muscles are engaged but free of excess tension.
In postures such as extended side angle, triangle and warrior II, there are clear lines of force within the pose. For instance, in triangle pose, both sides of the torso should be equally long and the practitioner should rest easily into the triangles he/she has created with his/her body. In extended side angle, there should be a clear line of force from the fingertips of the lifted arm all the way down to the heel of the back foot. In warrior II there should be a clear line of force from the fingertips of the front hand all the way to the fingertips of the backhand. In both extended side angle and warrior II the knee is ideally aligned right over the ankle.
Breath and prana during Asana practice
Each posture should include the following three principles/elements:
- ease of breath
The simple act of stretching has powerful physical benefits such as the release of tension in joints and muscles. So, how does yoga differ from basic stretching? In yoga, we use the breath and mental focus to use our yoga practice for psychological and spiritual growth as well. Done properly, yoga postures can enhance prana and vitality, teach the mind discipline and self-acceptance and open the doorway to an enhanced creative process.
The breath can be a doorway to increased vitality and moving meditation during the practice of yoga postures. The inhale is used during most extension movements and while raising the arms or performing backbends. The exhale is used during most flexion or folding movements or when the arms are being lowered. In order to learn why, try the following exercise:
Start with your arms at your sides, palms facing up. On the long slow inhale, raise your arms out to the sides and overhead. On an exhale, turn your palms toward the earth and lower your arms back down to your sides. Do this several times. Then do the opposite. Start with the palms facing up and on the long slow exhale, and raise your arms out to the sides and overhead. On an inhale, turn your palms toward the earth and lower your arms back down to your sides. Notice how the first version of the exercise allows you to inhale and exhale much more deeply. The second version makes the breath feel shallow and awkward. Why is this the case? As the arms move out to the sides and up, the lower ribs expand making it easier for the diaphragm to expand with the inhale. As the arms move out to the sides and down, the lower ribs relax back down making it easier to exhale more completely.
This is just one example of how the breath can enhance the benefits of our movements during yoga. Inhaling during backbends and extension movements help us to lengthen and support the spine. Exhaling during forward folds allows us to relax into the movement and exhale more completely. The breath and the movements are like partners in a dance of vitality and mental focus. When one partner is out of sync, it affects the other. For many beginners, even the act of being conscious of the breath can be difficult. However, over time the breath becomes like second nature and breathing patterns begin to become healthier outside the yoga class as well.
The Yoga Sutras say that the quality of one’s breath and prana determines the quality of the mind. A calm breath generates a calm mind and vice versa. In a beginner yoga class, instruct your students to direct their awareness to the breath. Encourage your students to keep their minds and the breath engaged along with their physical movements.
Yoga can be defined as the union between body and mind. In order to experience this union, the breath is the bridge between the body and mind and all three must remain engaged, aligned and connected. The breath can also provide an indication of when we are practicing with self-defeating states such as competitiveness, worry or too much striving. The breath will then be tense and forced. The best indication of a successful yoga practice is a breath that is easy and free flowing.